Seven writers with books coming out in the first months of the new year share their thoughts about creativity, the transformative power of writing, and the infinite potential of the literary imagination.
“I believe in writing through the difficulty of a truth, the ugliness of a truth. I believe it is worth asserting that we have value beyond the humiliation, hurt, oppression, and trauma we face in our lives and our skins every day.”
Why do you write?
I write in order to live; to be sane in this world; to expand my own ideas of what’s possible; for the girl inside me who did not believe she was valuable; for the woman inside me who trivializes her own pain; for all the living people, especially women of color, who feel the same way; to rail against silence and erasure; to center my own narrative; to recover history; to imagine a future; to record and witness the present; to tell the truth.
What has changed you as a writer?
Perhaps it’s the way I process or address trauma in my work. Before, I rarely wrote poems that were autobiographical or about my personal experiences—if I did, they were hidden or tucked away. Recently I began taking steps to approach the personal in a way I’ve avoided before, and I do recognize something liberating and comforting about allowing poems to carry the weight of a pain that is both deep-rooted and fresh. I am probing my wound and also acknowledging that the wound is more complex than its pain: It is a human experience, and all wounds can be seeds.
Who do you turn to when you feel like you’re losing faith?
I think of the women who have come before me, all the revolutionary women who are also my muses.
How do you challenge yourself to grow as a writer?
I challenge myself to write something that reflects the truth of how I feel in a world that always questions my right to feel it, that invalidates my experience as a woman of color. Before I can do this, I need to challenge myself to overcome internalizing how the outside world perceives me based on how I’ve been treated— that is, that my words are not valid, that my experience or my feelings do not matter. Once I conquer those voices—and I will not conquer them every day, but that’s okay—I can write.
You are a literary superhero—what is your name, your superpower, your kryptonite?
My name is Anime Wong, and my active superpower is dealing heavenly punishment to sexual assaulters and making cruel and entitled men forfeit their egos and surrender the power they so desperately hold on to. Then I take these inflated egos and deliver their power to people who need it and deserve it. My other superpower is healing heartbreak and making women of color recognize their self-worth. My kryptonite…I’m not supposed to tell you that.
— Sally Wen Mao, author of Oculus (Graywolf Press, January)
“I believe in writing as one tool to begin society’s slow crawl toward honesty with itself.”
What has changed you as a writer?
I feel charged with representing nothing in the world as small, nothing in the world as mundane. I have grown a deeper gratitude for the idea of production that isn’t entirely based on what I put on the page and more on how I honor the moments of living off the page. All of those things make a return to writing less daunting for me, more full of possibility.
What does a perfect writing day feel like to you?
It doesn’t always involve writing. Sometimes it’s a trip to the movies in the middle of the day or a run to the market, where a familiar face might pass me, or a walk to the gym, where I see the older dogs who don’t wish for much other than the hand of a passerby to graze over their heads as they slowly and indifferently meander through the grass. All of those things represent a type of writing.
Who do you turn to when you feel like you’re losing faith?
I’m finding faith in writers who at least attempt to engage with a complicated honesty. I’m into writers who ask and answer with confidence, fully understanding that none of us really know shit.
What do you think of when you find yourself avoiding the page?
I think of the fact that I come from a people who at one point were jailed or beaten or killed for the act of writing. That doesn’t always send me sprinting back to the page, but it makes clear for me what the stakes are and how privileged I am.
What would you say to the ten-year-old you?
Your living will remain impossible to believe.
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Saddle Up and Read
A young reader finds an attentive audience during a July 2020 farm visit.
SOME THOUGHTS ON ORDER—IN POETRY, IN LIFE
A Decade of Women Who Submit
For the past decade an international community of women and nonbinary writers have been working to claim space for themselves in an industry historically dominated by men. Known as Women Who Submit (WWS), the group supports and empowers its members to submit their work in spite of publishing’s inequities. Their achievements have been extraordinary: This July, the organization celebrates its tenth year, with twenty-seven chapters across the United States and Mexico, more than one hundred fifty successful book and magazine publication credits by its members in 2020, and a devoted community of writers, editors, and publishers.
Ehrlich Speaks to Mother-Writers
Lara Ehrlich, author of the short story collection Animal Wife (Red Hen Press, 2020), has a deep narrative investment in the ways the world denies women power and agency. In October 2020 that commitment took a new shape with the first episode of her podcast, Writer Mother Monster, a much-needed balm for those of us balancing mothering and writing in the midst of a global pandemic. Aimed at dismantling the myth that women can “have it all,” her podcast is a series of interviews with mother-writers working in all genres, at varied points in their careers, who candidly discuss the joys and complications of that dual identity. Ehrlich, herself a mother-writer—her daughter turns five this year—spoke about what she has gleaned from these exchanges and how they’ve influenced her own approach.
What We Ought to Do: THE SONG OF IMBOLO MBUE
In her second novel, How Beautiful We Were, Imbolo Mbue uses the chorus of voices in a small African village fighting for justice in the shadow of an American oil company to sing in celebration of community, connection, and enduring hope.
Pandemic Pen Pals
Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.
Neither muscle nor mouth
Neither muscle nor mouth / devoted to one way of speaking. Every language // I borrow from somewhere else,” writes Threa Almontaser in The Wild Fox of Yemen (Graywolf Press, April 2021), winner of the Walt Whitman Award. In her debut Almontaser summons the language of her ancestors and family members, poets both contemporary and historical, experimental rock bands and rappers, and many more, to fashion an idiom that is both rebellious and reverent. Dedicated to the people of Yemen, the book offers a portrait of a country and its history and future. “Yemen has such an ancient and rich history, but with its current collapse, search engines show only the sad photos of starving kids,” says Almontaser. “I wanted to portray not only the war, but the beauty of Arabia Felix, of what it could still return to being.”
Writers Confront Climate Crisis
Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved.
Revising the Dream
Publishing a debut novel in an uncertain world
Pandemic Writing Group
Finding Creativity, Community, and Play
The Culture Pages – The Queen of Fractured Fairy Tales
Hlen Oyeyemi writes magical, unsettling novels in which nothing remains fixed. She has lived her life that way, too.
Children's literature – Six-Pack
Scott Hobbs Bourne Proposes An Act Of Imagination
A Date With Svetlana Alexievich In Berlin Or, Smuggling Bugs Into Soviet Moscow
A Cuban writer, having lived in Soviet-era Moscow and East Berlin in the 1980s, reflects on real-life bugs and make-believe characters.
Master Of Enchantment
In her latest novel, Alice Hoffman works her magic on World War II
145 Minutes With … Bari Weiss
A book party occasions a gathering of the moderate chic.
Misunderstanding Susan Sontag
Her beauty and celebrity eclipse the real source of her allure—her commitment to cool control.
Broken Spies For A Broken
Mick Herron is the John le Carré of the Brexit era.
Mike Judge On The End Of Silicon Valley
As silicon valley draws to a close, The Master Parodist behind the hit show reflects upon what big tech has wrought
Connecticut Mom's Tortured Final Moments
Murdered Connecticut mom-of-five Jennifer Dulos never stood a chance!
Lulu Wang Spots The Lie
The director of the Sundance sensation The Farewell has made the kind of movie Hollywood never makes.